A year ago, Zach Anner, 26, was an unknown Austin, Texas filmmaker. But that all changed when he posted an audition tape online last summer for “Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search For The Next TV Star.” In the video, Anner told viewers that he has “the sexiest of the palsies” and pitched a “travel show for people who never thought they could travel.”
Within days, the video went viral, attracting the attention of singer John Mayer and plugs on sites like Digg and Reddit. Anner ultimately garnered over 9 million votes from the public and scored one of 10 spots on an Oprah Winfrey Network reality show where the winner would receive their own TV program.
In a twist, Winfrey said last month that she would award both Anner and another finalist from the reality show, Kristina Kuzmic-Crocco, with shows on her new network.
Now, as Anner prepares to produce a six-episode run of “Rollin’ Around the World with Zach Anner,” he opens up to Disability Scoop about his new show, working with Oprah and living with cerebral palsy.
Disability Scoop: How do you feel after winning?
Zach Anner: I am feeling like I could take on the world right now, which is good because I have to. I’m just so excited because I really feel like this is an opportunity to change the world and change perceptions. We’ve known since October, so it’s been really, really tough to keep a secret for that amount of time. I had to live like a hermit. It’s just so amazing to have that weight lifted.
Disability Scoop: What can you tell us about the production of your travel show?
Zach Anner: It’s going to air sometime in the next few months and we’re going into pre-production soon. OWN is very concerned with making sure that my voice is heard throughout the creative process, so I think it’s going to be a collaboration on all fronts. I would like to do an episode in Austin and then go to places like New Orleans and maybe San Francisco — just really awesome, unique cities around the country to start. I also would love to incorporate some of the natural beauty that we have in this country.
Disability Scoop: Have you had an opportunity to spend much time with Oprah?
Zach Anner: Not that much, but I’ll tell you what, she is absolutely everything that you see on TV. She is such a genuine person. I’m really looking forward to her being my boss.
Disability Scoop: Why create a travel show?
Zach Anner: I think that the best way to get a broader perspective on your life is to travel and to just take life as it comes. Some of the best adventures that I’ve had have been traveling with my dad. We’ve gone to Europe and had to completely adapt to inaccessible countries. We had to take apart my electric wheelchair so that we could shove it on a train in seconds and I’ve carried luggage as my dad pushed me up a mountain.
We thought this would be a great travel show. It was something that I’ve wanted to do for years and it’s something that I thought people would really respond to. If you’ve been putting traveling off for one reason or another, like physical ability or financial, this might inspire some people to get off their ass and have a good time.
Disability Scoop: What does having cerebral palsy mean for you?
Zach Anner: Obviously my speech is somewhat affected, my movement is, but it’s something that I’ve learned to embrace and make it reflect my personality rather than trying to hide it. When people think of me, I want them to think of a travel show host who’s really funny and good at his job and I think eventually the CP won’t even play into it, or at least that’s the goal.
Disability Scoop: Oprah said multiple times during the “Your OWN Show” competition that she worried about whether you have stamina for a TV show. Do you think that was a valid concern?
Zach Anner: I feel like when you have a disability the tendency is to think, can this person do this? I don’t blame anybody for thinking that because they may not know what I’m capable of or what I’ve done and every disability is different. Sometimes, it may affect stamina, but in my case it hasn’t. I’m a bundle of energy all the time.
Disability Scoop: What would you say to other people out there with disabilities who are watching you?
Zach Anner: The key is to never let your disability define you in any way. It’s something that you deal with everyday, but find out who you are beneath all the difficult stuff. Then, facing those physical challenges will become so much easier. I know that a lot of people watching have really related to what I’m doing and my message to them is that anybody can do this. It’s just a matter of having faith in yourself and knowing that anything is possible.
Disability Scoop: Have you gotten much feedback from viewers?
Zach Anner: When my audition video first started getting a lot of attention, my phone number was still online so I got about 100 calls a day. I got a call from a man who was in tears. His son had been in car accident and he said that my video had inspired him to go traveling with his son. That’s when it struck me that it was much bigger than what I had even intended. It was just a fun little travel show and I didn’t realize that it might be able to change people’s lives in some real way until that moment.
Having a disability and growing up with one, you’re always looking for a place in the world where you fit and where you can excel and make the best use of all your talent and your ability. Knowing that I’ve found a path where I can make a difference in people’s lives, it means the world to me.
Disability Scoop: Last summer John Mayer said he would write and perform a theme song for your show. Will he be following through?
Zach Anner: I think so. We’ve been chatting back and forth and he’s been really great and supportive. I just can’t wait to hear what he comes up with.
Disability Scoop: What does the future have in store for Zach Anner?
Zach Anner: I’d love to be People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” but I think that that’s a ways off. I have to stop wearing sweat pants and then we’ll work on that. But the travel show itself has been a huge goal for me for a long time and I’d just love to continue on this path and see where it takes me.